The Virginia House of Delegates and Senate have both accepted the governor’s amendment to their respective versions of legislation to legalize marijuana in the state, including a revision that will push up the timeline to allow adults to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use this summer instead of in 2024.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has been strongly advocating for the reform, and lawmakers sent bills to legalize marijuana for adult use to his desk in February. Late last month, the governor formally submitted substitute language to the bills, and on Wednesday, both chambers approved the proposed changes to their own versions, with the House accepting its revised measure, 53-44, and the Senate clearing its legislation by a vote of 21-20, with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) breaking a tie.
Following those initial votes, both bodies then passed the opposite chamber’s bill as amended, meaning the legislation is now enacted without need for any further gubernatorial action since Northam’s revisions have been approved as submitted.
One of the most notable amendments makes it so possession of cannabis by adults 21 and older will be legal on July 1 of this year, rather than on January 1, 2024 as the measure originally stipulated.
In addition to possession, home cultivation will be also allowed starting in July. Plants would have to be labeled with “identification information, out of sight of public view, and out of range of individuals under the age of 21.”
The governor also asked the legislature to adopt an amendment to expedite automatic expungements for people with prior marijuana convictions, and they accepted that request.
“We made history as the first state in the South to legalize the simple possession of marijuana,” Northam said in a press release after the votes. “I am pleased that the General Assembly accepted my proposal to make this change on July 1, 2021 nearly three years earlier than planned. Marijuana laws were explicitly designed to target communities of color, and Black Virginians are disproportionately likely to be stopped, charged, and convicted. Today, Virginia took a critical step to right these wrongs and restore justice to those harmed by decades of over-criminalization.”
Additionally, his substitute bill calls for immediate funding for a public education campaign “on the health and safety risks of marijuana,” as well as money for law enforcement training to train officers to “recognize and prevent drugged driving.”
Another amendment states that regulators should have the authority to “revoke a company’s business license if they interfere with union organizing efforts, fail to pay prevailing wage as defined by the United States Department of Labor, or classify more than ten percent of employees as independent contractors,” according a a summary from Northam’s office.
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Sales are still slated to begin in 2024.
Advocates said they’re pleased with some of the revisions, but say they wanted more from the governor.
Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, called the reform “an incredible victory” that will “bring an end to the thousands of low-level marijuana infractions occurring annually in the Commonwealth—ending a discriminatory practice that far too often targets Virginians who are young, poor, and people of color.”
“While a number of important improvements were made, we’re disappointed that Virginia is not following the common-sense pathways previously established by other states that have successfully expanded from medical-use to adult-use.,” Pedini, who also serves as the national development director for NORML, said. “In the interest of public and consumer safety, Virginians 21 and older should be able to purchase retail cannabis products at the already operational dispensaries in 2021, not in 2024. Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”
While the Senate-passed legalization bill would have enacted legalization on July 1, the House was reluctant and called for a 2024 start date in their proposal—with that chamber winning out in bicameral negotiations to form a final bill to send to the governor’s desk.
But days after the Northam first signaled that he’d be open to allowing certain provisions of the legalization measure to take effect earlier, leaders of House joined that call, with Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) saying that “change is long past due and it cannot wait.”
The speaker celebrated the final legislative action on Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D), who was the lead sponsor of the legalization bill in her chamber, said she is “ecstatic to see if come to fruition.”
State Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who had endorsed legalization ahead of Northam and leading lawmakers, said the state “made history as the first state in the south to legalize marijuana, a great step in the right direction for criminal justice reform.”
Separately, the House and Senate also approved proposed amendments from the governor to a budget bill that the legislature passed, including a call for an additional $1 million to support training law enforcement to identify impaired driving and another $1 million for “marijuana prevention and education programs and public health campaigns.”
Northam described the amendments he wants included in the budget legislation in a letter to lawmakers last week, noting that the funding for public education would include programs “focused on youth and college-aged populations.”
Advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Marijuana Justice, were highly critical of the legislature’s initial move to delay legalization until 2024.
Meanwhile, a Republican congressman recently wrote to Northam, calling marijuana a “gateway drug” and asking the governor to veto the legislation altogether—a proposal that was rejected.
Support for legalizing marijuana is strong in Virginia, according to a poll released in February. It found that more than two-thirds of adults in the Commonwealth (68 percent) favor adult-use legalization, including a slim majority (51 percent) of Republican voters.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.